Thursday, 31 July 2014

Truly bilingual

By Emily Prucha | Prague Daily Monitor |
9 November 2012

I love traveling, but I've never been a natural linguist. During my first year in Prague, my best friend from Virginia and I got by communicating in Czech by pooling our resources. I was the brains behind the operation; she was the voice. When we stopped at a kiosk or ordered in a restaurant, I thumbed through my guidebook for appropriate survival Czech phrases. My friend Brooke could then reproduce the phrase. Within weeks of arrival, Brooke was comfortable using Czech to make her way through the city and communicate with her students. Czechs, including Radek, complimented her accent and told her she spoke like a native, or at least like a Moravian. Meanwhile, I was stuck in self-imposed silence. Guidebook in hand, I was paralyzed by fear of mispronouncing something and facing embarrassment.

Brooke has gone on to build a thriving international career for herself, navigating foreign cultures and languages, using French and Spanish and probably some cultural adaptation tricks she learned while living in Prague. Ten years later, with a Czech husband and three half-Czech children, I now appreciate a good Pilsner, and I speak Czech daily. For me, speaking Czech is a matter of survival, as well as the basis for a good quality of life in the country that's become my second home. I know my accent won’t be as perfect as Brooke’s, but I’d like to think that I've given up perfection for fluency. Neither one of us was exposed to a second language in our primitive years, still we have managed, through desire and necessity, to incorporate second (and, in her case, third) languages into our daily lives.

Knowing how I've worked over the years to become fluent in Czech, it's been easier to adjust to the realization that our "naturally" bilingual children might also need dedicated effort and consistent reinforcement to acquire a high-level of verbal competence as well as written comprehension in both their native languages. I often encounter adults, like the local Czech librarian who recently gave Oliver his new library card. When he thanked her in Czech, then turned to me and spoke English, she shook her head and sighed. "Oh, to be young again and have a sharp mind." Although I often attribute my children's bilingualism to their pliable, young brains or the multilingual environment, I think it's fair to admit that raising bilingual children requires effort and persistence. Those same skills that I relied on when trying to learn Czech have come in handy as my children begin their own bilingual journeys.

Many of the mixed nationality families that we encounter in Prague complain of a language imbalance within their multilingual families. Perhaps their first-born child switches easily between his two native languages while his younger sister chooses to speak Czech only, even though she perfectly understands English. In some cases, the "minority" language gets short-shifted because the non-Czech speaking parent isn't around enough to counterbalance the influence of the dominant Czech environment. Or perhaps Spanish and French parents speak French at home so their children don't get a chance to hear much native Spanish, since they're learning French and Czech in school. I met one Spanish mother recently who complained that her children were learning too much Czech at their international preschool. Since the family is only temporarily based in Prague, she preferred her children focus on Spanish, French or English, languages she believed would be more useful when the family relocated.

When I talk with other parents of bilingual children, it's interesting how many different methods are used to combat language imbalance. While some families pay to put their children in private international schools; others hire private tutors for the non-school language. Less-pricy options include finding extra-curricular classes or activities taught in the non-dominant language, hiring a baby-sitter who only speaks the non-dominant language, or even getting together with other families to create language-based play-groups. This year, some of our friends moved their family to Sweden for half a school year so their Swedish/Czech son could start first grade in Sweden and their younger son could perhaps learn to say some of his first words in Swedish.

As the years pass, our family's language focus switches to respond to the need of the moment. Not wanting my children to get their second-language exposure as late as I did, I was eager to bring Anna to the Czech Republic before her first birthday so that we could have a more realistic chance of raising her bilingually. Initially, her Czech language acquisition came on more slowly than I would have expected considering the effort I invested attending Czech playgroups, visiting babička and having Radek speak Czech with her. It wasn't until Anna started attending a Czech state preschool at age three that her Czech language skills really took off. After-school activities, living in a Czech neighborhood, and visits with our Czech family have rounded out her Czech language exposure. Oliver's language experience has been similar to his sister's, although he's still apt to throw English words into his Czech sentences and vice versa. At age five, he's becoming interested in letters and how they sound. Since he'll start school next year in Czech, I've decided to focus on learning the ABC's in English with him this year at home.

Peer pressure can have its benefits, particularly when it's used to encourage language interaction that might otherwise fall by the wayside. Being an outsider in any culture is no fun, and I've witnessed first-hand how cultural and environment factors can play significant roles in determining the success of a second or third language acquisition. It's easier to fit in as my children (and I) quickly realized, if you can speak the language. To this point, another American mother and I recently decided to join forces to reinforce our children's English language learning with some extra reading and writing practice, geared to the specific ages of our six (in total) children. We figured they'd be more receptive to the idea of structured learning if they each had a playmate to do it with.

It'll soon be Samuel's turn to start preschool, and although he isn't speaking much Czech yet, I expect the transition will come. Although Anna and Oliver speak Czech to each other, they speak English, usually exaggerated baby talk, with Samuel. At home, Samuel only communicates in English. But, at a recent play date with our Czech friends, I overhead Samuel repeatedly saying, mužeš (you can) or nemužeš (you can't) to tell his Czech friends which toys they could play with. I also heard him trying out the expression Nech toho! (Stop it!) and grinning with satisfaction when he was understood.

For our family, Czech came on full-force after each child started interacting in a Czech school setting. However, as their English-speaking mother, now I've shifted my concentration to ensuring that their English remains strong. Recently, Anna's after-school English teacher (through the Class Act's Bohemian Bilinguals program), switched gears and ditched their British second-grade level textbooks for a few weeks of concentrated phonics and basic alphabet review. Although Anna said the easier class was more fun, she also was a bit insulted the teacher gave her such simple sight words as "a, and, the, as, at" to learn. I was pleased to see Anna's internal motivation to master harder spelling words in English kick-in, without prompting from me.

My years of embarrassment speaking Czech have largely faded, although I still encounter instances when I'm aware that I could make my point clearer if I resorted to English. But, I persist. It's good for my mind, and studies suggest that I might even reap some benefits in old age, when bilingual brains appear to have more resistance against the onset of Alzheimer's. Plus, I think I owe it to my kids to be able to communicate effectively in the language of the country where we live, a language that's predominant in their young lives. If I don't watch out, pretty soon they'll be teaching me.

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.